The three principal artists were José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Rivera is usually considered the chief figure. All three were committed to left-wing ideas in the politically turbulent Mexico of the period and their painting reflects this. Siqueiros in particular pursued an active career in politics, suffering several periods of imprisonment for his activities. Their use of large-scale mural painting in or on public buildings was intended to convey social and political messages to the public. In order to make their work as accessible as possible they all worked in basically realist styles but with distinctively personal differences – for example Orozco has elements of surrealism while Siqueiros is vehemently expressionist.
The movement can be said to begin with the murals by Rivera for the Mexican National Preparatory School and the Ministry of Education, executed between 1923 and 1928. Orozco and Siqueiros worked with him on the first of these. The Mexican Muralists carried out a number of major works in the USA which helped bring them to wide attention and had some influence on the abstract expressionists. Notable among these are Rivera’s 1932–3 murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts depicting the Ford automobile plant (extant), and at the Rockefeller Center, New York (destroyed on Rockefeller’s orders after a press scandal when a portrait of Lenin was noticed in the mural); Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilisation at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire and his Prometheus at Pomona College California (both extant); and Siqueiros’s 1932 Tropical America in Los Angeles. Siqueiros’s mural – an attack on American imperialism in Mexico was painted over some time after it was made, but is now undergoing restoration.